This section contains 1,796 words
(approx. 5 pages at 400 words per page)
Chapters 1-6 Summary
"Excellent Women" by Barbara Pym begins with the main character, Mildred Lathbury, watching as a new neighbor moves into the flat below her own. Mildred lives in a three story apartment building in a less than posh London neighborhood. On the bottom floor is a number of offices, on the second floor is the newly occupied flat, and the top floor belongs to Mildred. Mildred had moved into the flat with a schoolmate, Dora, after her parents died. Mildred was raised in a vicarage in the country, the only daughter of a clergyman and his wife. Mildred's parents died and Mildred decided to take a flat in London with Dora and go to work at the Society for Aged Gentlewomen. Since then, Dora moved out to the country to teach at a Catholic girls' school.
All in all, Mildred is a mousy woman who cares much more about others than her appearance or herself. Being raised in a vicarage has instilled very strong and deep Christian behaviors in Mildred, who lives by an extremely strict moral code. Many of Mildred's behaviors often seem archaic and overly proper.
Mildred and the new neighbor, Mrs. Helena Napier, meet in the basement by the dustbins. This chance encounter embarrasses Mildred as it does not seem at all proper to have a first meeting while carrying garbage. Mrs. Napier is a light-haired woman, who dresses in bright corduroy trousers and a cheerful jersey. In comparison, Mildred refers to herself as mousy and plain in shapeless clothes. Mildred is quick to point out to the reader that she is nothing like Jane Eyre, although she does choose to tell her story in the first person. Mrs. Napier tells Mildred that her husband is in the Army and will be joining her soon.
Mrs. Napier tells Mildred about her work as an anthropologist. Mildred has no idea what an anthropologist does, but it still sounds fascinating all the same. The part that especially fascinates Mildred is when Mrs. Napier says that her husband is living in Italy, and she has recently returned from Africa. Although Mildred is captivated by Mrs. Napier, she bears a sense of disdain over the woman's lack of domestication. Mildred sternly reminds herself that this attitude is not one of Christian charity. Mildred was born and raised in the country, the daughter of a minister and his wife. After her parents died within two years of each other, Mildred connected with an old school friend with whom she eventually shared an apartment. Because Mildred is over 30, and unmarried, there is a stigma of becoming a spinster, a role which Mildred does not dislike.
St. Mary's Church is the place of worship for Mildred and as an unmarried woman she becomes good friends with the pastor and his older sister. Mildred has dinner at the vicarage on a regular basis. The food is not very good but neither the pastor, nor his sister seems to notice because there are much more interesting things to think and talk about. Julian Malory, a man of about 40 years old, is the pastor. Both Julian and his sister are tall, angular and thin. Winifred is especially eager and high strung with a sense of awkwardness about her. The woman has good intentions, but has little skill in a domestic role, and her hard work tends to suffer from lack of skill, but not from enthusiasm. Mildred finds it odd that more people do not dote on Julian, especially since he is an unmarried pastor. There is a look about him that can be somewhat forbidding and Mildred surmises that perhaps this is the reason no one has ever knitted a sweater or scarf for him.
Over dinner, Mildred tells the Malorys about Mrs. Napier, and in return, the Malorys tell her of an unexpected donation from an anonymous source. There is much excitement from the Malorys and the discussion is lengthy.
The Malorys decide that their house is too large for just the two of them and it does not seem fair that there are many people who need a place to live. The brother and sister have decided to rent the rooms on the second floor and ask Mildred if she is interested. Mildred says that while it would be lovely, she opts to stay in her current apartment. Winifred agrees, saying that it would probably be improper for an unmarried woman to share at the house with an unmarried vicar and his sister.
On the way home from the Malorys, Mildred hears voices from the Napiers' apartment. Knowing that Mr. Napier has not yet come home from Italy, Mildred wonders who the male voice to longs to and why he would be at the Napiers' apartment in the absence of Mr. Napier.
Helena visits Mildred and tells her that Mr. Napier is coming home from Italy. Helena is not terribly keen on her husband returning from the military particularly because the couple has nothing in common. Mr. Napier does not care about anthropology, which upsets Helena. Helena confesses that she and Rocky felt an instant passionate connection when they met and never stopped to learn much about each other before they married.
Mildred finds out the identity of the male voice she had heard in the Napier apartment. It belongs to Everard Bone, an anthropologist and colleague to Helena. Bone and Helena were both on the trip to Africa and have decided to write a professional paper on the experience. Both are members of the Learned Society, a fact that deeply impresses Mildred.
A telegram arrives at the apartment announcing Mr. Napier's arrival. Since Helena is not home, the delivery man takes the telegram to Mildred's flat. Mildred knows that Helena is not home and feels that it is important to find a way to get in touch with her. Mildred remembers Everard Bone and thinks that perhaps he and Helena are working on the paper. Mildred calls Bone's home and speaks to his mother. Mrs. Bone says that Everard is at a meeting at the pre-historic society and Mildred assumes that Helena is probably with him.
Rockingham Napier arrives home and Mildred is the one to greet him at the door. Rockingham is a tall, handsome man who carries himself with the distinct air of a military man. Mildred instantly finds Rockingham handsome and charming.
The Napiers' doors are open and the pair enters the flat. Rockingham seems to be thrilled to be at home amongst his things and tells Mildred he is not surprised that Helena is not there to greet him. Rockingham confesses that Helena is not at all domestic and he would never expect to come home to a meal. Mildred finds Rockingham increasingly attractive and worldly.
Mildred goes to the Malorys' house to help Winifred with the church jumble sale. Winifred tells Mildred that they found a tenant to rent the upper rooms of the house. The woman, Mrs. Gray, is the widow of a clergyman. Although Mrs. Gray is technically a single woman, it is considered proper for her to live with the Malorys, because her husband was also in the clergy.
On Ash Wednesday, Mildred attends mass at a church near her office at the Censorship. Mildred is surprised to see Everard Bone at mass. If Bone recognizes Mildred, he does not let on. Mildred tries to decide if she should mention Bone's presence at mass to the Napiers. Later that evening, Mildred hears the Napiers bickering as she goes upstairs to her flat.
Rocky invites Mildred to come downstairs for a visit. After considering the oddity of seeing Everard, Mildred decides to mention seeing Bone at the mass at St. Ermin's Church. Helena is somewhat defensive, asking if Mildred thinks all anthropologists were atheists. Mildred says that she never thought about the religious affiliation of anthropologists at all but suspects that some may choose to worship the religious traditions of the ancients. This comment seems to appease Helena slightly. Helena says that Bone became a devout convert while working on one of the jobs before he went to Africa.
Chapters 1-6 Analysis
Mildred Lathbury is a reserved country girl who has moved to a less than desirable part of London. As the daughter of a clergyman, Mildred has very strong ideas about what is proper for a woman and particularly, what is appropriate for an unmarried woman just over the age of 30. Although Mildred was eager to move to London there are still parts of her that belong in the country and she often seems uneasy with the more liberal attitudes of the people she meets. Mildred is devoted to Christian charity and is always willing to help a person in need.
As a devout Christian, Mildred finds St. Mary's Church a place of worship which suits her needs. Additionally, Mildred makes friends with the pastor, Julian Malory, and his older sister, Winifred. The Malorys are both in their 40s and unmarried. Oddly enough, the marital status of Winifred Malory does not seem to be a topic of conversation although many people in the congregation and the town find it strange that Julian Malory is not married and his sexuality often comes into question. Mildred is not one to think along such lines and ignores the comments. The only time Mildred considers any romantic relationship in regards to Julian is when it is determined that Mildred living in the same house with the Malorys would be considered improper.
There is much about Mildred that could be considered proper. The woman definitely has opinions about what is and is not appropriate, almost leaning toward prudish.
Mildred's first meeting with Helena Napier is somewhat embarrassing as it takes place next to the dustbins in the basement. Mildred feels it is in bad taste to meet a new neighbor while carrying waste baskets. Although Mildred is fascinated by Helena's career, dress and personality, there is something about the woman that Mildred does not like. One of the initial reasons for Mildred's disdain of Helena Napier is the fact that the woman is delighted by her own domestic ineptitude. Mildred cannot fathom a woman who is disinterested in taking care of her husband and home.
The presence of Everard Bone in the Napiers' flat also bothers Mildred. Mildred cannot imagine why another man should be present while Mr. Napier is still in Italy. When Mr. Napier arrives home, Helena is not present to greet him. This is one more thing that strikes Mildred as odd and inconsiderate.
Mildred immediately likes Mr. Napier. Rockingham Napier is attractive and friendly, seemingly the opposite of Helena. Mildred does not like Everett Bone as he seems as equally patronizing and rude as Helena.
This section contains 1,796 words
(approx. 5 pages at 400 words per page)